The Healing Power of Fractals

Most, if not all of us, find nature therapeutic in some way. We generally feel better, calmer for time spent outdoors in a natural environment, and one of the reasons for that is the repeating patterns that we see there, which are known as fractals. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot is credited with coining the term fractal in the 1970s. He defines a fractal as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole.” Research has shown that looking at fractals activates an area of the brain that helps us to process and regulate emotions. Mandelbrot posits that our “visual system is in some way hard-wired to understand fractals. The stress reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance when the fractal structure of the eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed.”

One of the reasons that a visit to the sea can be so healing is the fractal nature of the coastline: the more we zoom in, the longer it gets. “If you look at an atlas of the world, the distance from the south-west tip of Cornwall to the south-east tip of Kent will appear to be about 500 kilometres. But if you followed the coast on foot, you could expect to double that distance, as you followed the twists and turns of each bay and cove. And if you were an ant following every jutting ledge or rock, the distance would shoot up to many thousands of kilometres,” Tristan Gooley in How to Read Water.

Nature is full of fractals, including the ever-branching habit of trees, leaves, river deltas, lightening, snowflakes and frost, as well as the jaggedness of mountain ranges. Inside us the nervous, circulatory and respiratory systems are fractal and, on a grander scale, the universe itself is also fractal in nature. 

If you would like to learn more about fractals, I can recommend this entertaining TED Talk Fractals: a world in a grain of sand by Ben Weiss. Perhaps by understanding fractals, you will notice and appreciate them more in nature and so enhance the benefit that they confer to your health and wellbeing.